The Asian giant hornet, popularly known as the murder hornet, is getting a new moniker. This week, the Entomological Society of America announced that it will officially adopt the term “northern giant hornet” as the common name for Vespa mandarinia. The change was implemented to avoid the use of a potentially stigmatizing geographic reference for the invasive species, while also more accurately describing the insect’s origins.
V. mandarinia has gained a menacing reputation in recent years. Since 2019, they’ve been spotted in parts of the Pacific Northwest, in both the U.S. and Canada. Their arrival is concerning because they have a voracious appetite for bees. In fact, their murderous nickname comes from how viciously they will hunt down their prey, going as far to decapitate them. Both wild and farmed bees in the U.S. have been struggling with population decline and high rates of colony loss, so the last thing they need is a new invasive predator on the scene.
Scientists are still hoping that it’s possible to sniff out and eradicate V. mandarinia before the hornets can become firmly established in North America. But whatever ends up happening, these bugs will undoubtedly be on people’s minds for the foreseeable future. So experts with the Entomological Society of America wanted to pick a more fitting label for its first official recognition of the insect, as part of its ongoing Better Common Names Project.
Many scientific and public health organisations have been trying to steer away from naming animals and germs after locations or other terms that could be associated with ethnic or racial groups. Historically, such names have stoked discriminatory or xenophobic attitudes, and they often aren’t very useful to boot. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, which didn’t actually originate in Spain.
In light of the growing rise of anti-Asian sentiment within the U.S., the ESA didn’t want to endorse the old common name, especially in the context of it being an invasive species. And the term never really made much sense, anyway. All 22 known species of hornets are native to or very common in Asia, for instance, so it hardly provided much relevant context. Perhaps for obvious reasons, “murder hornet” was never up for serious consideration either. “Northern giant hornet,” on the other hand, is a reference to its geographical range in Asia.
The ESA has also decided to adopt new common names for the very closely related species Vespa soror, now known as the “southern giant hornet,” and another hornet species Vespa velutina, now referred to as the “yellow-legged hornet” (that name was already being widely used by researchers in the field). The proposal for the name changes was submitted by Chris Looney, one of the researchers at the Washington State Department of Agriculture trying to track and stop V. mandarinia.
“Common names are an important tool for entomologists to communicate with the public about insects and insect science,” said ESA President Jessica Ware in a statement provided to Gizmodo. “Northern giant hornet is both scientifically accurate and easy to understand, and it avoids evoking fear or discrimination.”
The ESA has called for other scientists, government organisations, and media outlets to use the new term for these invasive bugs moving forward, while the Entomological Society of Canada has officially adopted the use of northern and southern giant hornet as well. Whatever you want to call them, here’s hoping that these bee-killing insects don’t become so common that we’re frequently writing about them in the future.